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Thursday, 24 May 2012

Shuffle (2011)

Director: Kurt Kuenne
Stars: T J Thyne, Paula Rhodes, Chris Stone, Michelle Krusiec and Tamara Taylor
This film was an official selection at the Phoenix Film Festival in Phoenix in 2012. Here's an index to my reviews of 2012 films.
Shuffle, which deservedly won for both Best Film and Best Director at the Phoenix Film Festival, which is racking up more awards everywhere it goes and which will return to Arizona tonight to open up the Phoenix Comicon, is exactly the sort of film people like me want to review. It's a low budget picture, albeit not that low budget. Sure, half a million dollars is twenty times what The Blair Witch Project had to shoot with, but once the marketing got added the two come out pretty even. For a more pertinent comparison, it would have accounted for less than twenty seconds of Battleship. If that doesn't nail the fundamental problem with Hollywood today, I don't know what does. The budget also means that Shuffle features character actors throughout the cast, not just to support a couple of stars. We recognise some of them too, three being regulars on TV's Bones. It tells an original story in an original way, which never hurts. It's also really, really good.

In short, it's the sort of movie that you probably haven't heard of, unless you go to film festivals. If you've heard of it, you've probably seen it already or it's on your list. If you haven't, you really ought to seek it out and watch it: whoever you are, wherever it's playing, whatever you have to do to get there. That's where reviews like this tend to come in. You haven't a clue what it's about yet, because I've just raved a little and not told you anything useful. The catch is that it's one of those films where I really can't tell you much of substance because of its inherent nature. If I do, it'll be a spoiler. Usually I can get away with explaining the first fifteen minutes of story, because it's there to set up the rest of the piece. Usually I can illustrate some of the characters a little or offer a few tidbits that might help you see the sort of depth the filmmakers went to. Usually I can cite some examples of what they did right. Yet if I do that here, I'll be spoiling it for you.

The poster pretty much covers it. 'Every day I wake up,' it reads, 'at a different age in a different year on a different day of my life. I want it to stop.' Of course, when I read that, I started thinking of a fragmented art film, something underlined by the discovery that it's shot in black and white. Yet this isn't remotely similar to Memento or Pi. The closest comparisons are to classic films from the golden age of Hollywood: the sort of films made by Frank Capra or Preston Sturges; the sort of films where the lead characters reevaluate their lives, only to find that they're aren't precisely what they had thought; the sort of films where, in doing so, they prompt each and every one of their viewers to do exactly the same. Think It's a Wonderful Life. Think A Christmas Carol. Think Sullivan's Travels. The black and white isn't to be arty, it's to provide us a throwback to another time, fittingly for a film that leaps around all over it to build up its story.
The lead character is Lovell Milo, a great name given that it sounds like it's backwards to begin with, and he's played by T J Thyne, an experienced stage actor who's best known today as Dr Jack Hodgins, the bug and ick specialist on Bones. We meet him at different points throughout his life, seemingly at random but really with clever intent. The earliest we see him is at age 8 when he first picked up a camera; but his earliest memory is from when he was 92, in bed and unable to stay awake for long. In between we find out plenty: his relationships, his family, his work as a photographer. Milo's quest to figure out what is going on, and why it's happening to him to begin with, provides our story and it builds, grows and changes magnificently. I've long felt that Thyne is an underrated actor but I've never seen him play the lead in anything before, let alone a role as challenging as this. It really demonstrates what he's capable of.

The story plays with Milo's assumptions and by extension with ours, making Shuffle something of a unique film experience. In 1950, Alfred Hitchcock played with the assumptions of his audience and his characters in a film called Stage Fright and the final scenes outraged people. Put simply, he'd cheated them. Characters had said things and done things and all of that had built up into a story, yet some of the things that had been said were lies. The twist at the finalé was to tell the truth, which shocked everyone. Now, of course, such manipulation is routine and we expect it, but what writer Kurt Kuenne constructed here is still very clever indeed. At each point in his life, Milo believes certain things but, like all of us, they evolve over time in reaction to experience. Kuenne is honest throughout, but that certainly doesn't mean that he tells the truth. He merely provides an honest perspective of that truth, as the character sees it at the time.

As great as the cast are, it's difficult to separate Shuffle from Kuenne. Even had he only written the film, he would be worthy of note. This is a big jigsaw puzzle and he continually throws out pieces for us to put together, but he deliberately doesn't give us the box. Without the picture to look at, we have to work towards it, just as Milo does. There's mastery in this script, enough that I'm not just looking forward to seeing the film again tonight at Comicon, I'm looking forward to tracking down the other nine films he's written since 1990. Yet 'writer' is only one credit here for him. He shot the film, choosing to do so in black and white and with the photographer's eye that his lead character is supposed to have. He directed too, giving him the clout to ensure that the DVD release will have the black and white version in addition to a colour one. If that wasn't enough, he edited the piece (a particularly key role in this film) and composed the score too.
I can't really highlight anyone else in the cast, as characters are filtered through perspective as much as the story, meaning that they don't serve the same function throughout. One character may be a key player in Milo's life at this point but not be so important at that one. They may not be there at all. They may be seen from a completely different perspective. That's the great joy of this film, but it's also the reason I can't talk about them. You need to watch the movie to find out what they do and what they mean. I can say that Bones fans, who will surely be a major part of early audiences for the film, will find Patricia Belcher and Tamara Taylor along with T J Thyne. It's no spoiler to point out that Belcher, so powerful as Caroline the attorney on Bones, takes a small role as a psychiatrist here and it's good to see her. I won't tell you what Taylor, Thyne's boss on Bones, does here but, if you're a fan of the show, you'll certainly enjoy finding out.

I guess I can tell you about Barney Burman, who's credited as 'prosthetic makeup designer'. In other words, he took care of the aging effects which are massively important in a film where the cast appear at different ages from scene to scene. While the main characters, Milo included, are played by different actors as children, the adult versions are played by the same ones regardless what age they happen to be at the time. That puts a huge strain on Burman, who was required to make them look appropriate for the age they were but also different enough from the last scene we saw them in to delineate it well enough to avoid confusion. He does a great job, so much so that we don't focus on it. He was born to work in movies, given that what seems like everyone in his family did before him, but he's perhaps eclipsed them all with his Oscar win for the make up effects he worked on for the reboot of Star Trek in 2010.

Shuffle won't win an Oscar because it's too obscure an indie film. It will continue to play festivals where it will continue to rack up awards and attention, because it deserves them, just like earlier obscure indie gems like The Man from Earth, Lovely, Still and Absentia. It will be released to DVD in July or August and will do well; the Bones connection is hardly going to hurt. Most importantly, its success ought to point the way to future success with other productions. This doesn't feel like a one hit wonder, it feels like part of something bigger to keep an eye on. This film sprang out of Theatre Junkies Productions, founded by Thyne in 2001 and which Kuenne and other cast and crew are associated with. I'm not likely to see any of the plays they put on in LA but I'm certainly going to track back through the films that they've uploaded to YouTube, such as Validation, also made by Kuenne with Thyne, and whatever they happen to conjure up next. Watch this space.

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